Physical Agent

Definition - What does Physical Agent mean?

A physical agent is a source of energy that may cause injury or disease to humans.

Physical agents include ionizing radiation, optical radiation (UV radiation, light, infrared radiation), electromagnetic fields, vibration, and noise.

Safeopedia explains Physical Agent

“Physical agent” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of hazards that can all ultimately be described in reference to a form of energy creating the hazard (e.g. kinetic energy causing vibration or thermal energy creating hot conditions). The individual hazard groups classified as physical agents are subject to a variety of separate regulations from occupational health and safety authorities designed to manage the differing dangers posed to worker health.

The effects of many physical agents can either be acute and temporary (such as temporary numbness from short exposure to vibrating mechanical equipment) or gradual and permanent (such as hearing loss due to prolonged noise exposure). Extremes in environmental conditions (thermal hazards) including heat, cold, and humidity, as well as atmospheric pressure, are also potentially harmful physical agents.

Physical agents do not share a common level of hazard severity or health impact. Exposure to ionizing radiation from a radioactive material used as part of work processes poses a much more immediate threat of long-term health consequences than exposure to an unacceptable level of vibration. Physical agents are typically subject to exposure limits and requirements for the use of various hazard controls, and the amount of harm done to a worker by a physical agent usually depends on the length and strength of his or her exposure to the hazard. Health disorders caused by harm from physical agents are classified as occupational diseases.

Physical agents may be addressed as a group under specific hazard communication standards. For instance, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act requires all employers who introduce into the workplace a “thing” that causes, emits, or produces a hazardous physical agent to provide adequate information describing the hazard and prescribing proper usage to all exposed employees and any employee health and safety representatives. The employer must also post prominent notices identifying and warning of the hazardous physical agent in the area where it is located.

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